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The New England Patriots chased a sixth ring hard last season, and it almost paid off. They led the Super Bowl in the fourth quarter. In an unpredictable NFL world, any team would take that.
Little has gone right in New England since Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz scored what would be the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl LII. The Patriots went all-in for a title last season, and this offseason hasn’t been kind. Not yet anyway.
Receiver Danny Amendola went to the Miami Dolphins. Offensive tackle Nate Solder got paid a record amount to go to the New York Giants. Running back Dion Lewis left to the Tennessee Titans. Malcolm Butler, who will be discussed in New England forever for a couple Super Bowl reasons, is going to the Titans as well. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is now coaching the Detroit Lions. And while it seems like Rob Gronkowski won’t retire, he still hasn’t officially said he’ll play and if nothing else the clock is ticking on his career louder than anyone would have guessed at this point.
The Patriots will be fine, because they always are. They’ll find a few cheap free agents who nobody else wanted and they’ll become the new Butler or Lewis. That’s what they do. The Patriots don’t often splash around in the big-money end of the free-agent pool; they do their damage on the lower tiers. It’s also worth noting their offseason could turn around quickly by snatching up Tyrann Mathieu or Ndamukong Suh, impact defenders who were cut due to salary-cap reasons. And the Patriots still play in such a mess of a division, the Buffalo Bills traded their starting quarterback with no great backup plan … and they’re still probably the second-best team in the AFC East.
It would be dumb to count the Patriots out now because Bill Belichick is still coaching them and Tom Brady is still playing at an MVP level. Brady will eventually slow down, but betting on that seems unwise. It’s not like the Patriots will fall off the map. But getting back to a Super Bowl will have challenges after losing many key pieces.
Some roster reinforcements will come through the draft, or the rest of free agency. The Patriots are always active in the trade market, too. But they’ll need a good draft, ideally with at least a couple immediate contributors. Guys like Julian Edelman and Dont’a Hightower will return from injuries, and that will help. Rex Burkhead was re-signed, which takes a bit of the sting off losing Lewis. Maybe defensive tackle Danny Shelton, a former first-round pick acquired in a trade with the Cleveland Browns, will blossom in New England as so many others have.
Some of the players leaving, however, won’t be easy to replace. There aren’t any great left tackles on the market to plug in for Solder (Solder broke the bank because he was by far the only reliable left tackle in free agency). We all saw in the Super Bowl that the Patriots don’t have a great option in-house to replace Butler.
This isn’t the end of the Patriots’ dynasty. They’ll have a plan to retool the roster, and there’s a long way to go in the offseason. They’ll still win the AFC East and be Super Bowl contenders. But there are some cracks showing in the foundation. There’s only one thing that matters for the Patriots, and that’s winning more Super Bowls. That has become a lot harder after this week.
Here are the rest of the winners and losers from a crazy first few days of the free-agency period, keeping in mind that there’s still a lot more to go this offseason:
Cleveland Browns, except for that whole Joe Thomas retirement thing: The Browns had two hammers coming into the offseason. A ton of draft picks, and more salary-cap space than they could reasonably spend. They put both to good use already.
Make all the Browns jokes you want, and if you think they’ll be the Browns forever, they’ve earned that. But Cleveland is rapidly stockpiling talent. Adding quarterback Tyrod Taylor, running back Carlos Hyde and receiver Jarvis Landry helps the offense immensely. While trading a pick at the top of the third round for Taylor seems wasteful, considering he doesn’t look like any more than a one-year bridge starter while a rookie quarterback is groomed, it at least gives the Browns options. Cleveland got defensive back Damarious Randall from the Packers for quarterback DeShone Kizer, who didn’t fit in the team’s plans anymore. They signed former Oakland Raiders cornerback T.J. Carrie. And there are still a ton of draft picks to go.
Of course this is the Browns, so no offseason can be without doom and gloom. Just as Cleveland is starting to put together an intriguing roster, they lost their best player. Left tackle Joe Thomas decided to retire, and it’s not going to be easy to replace a Hall of Fame left tackle. It’s a huge blow, there’s no getting around that. But teams lose great players, and the Browns will just have to figure out a way to find a competent replacement.
Thomas’ retirement doesn’t sabotage all the good things the Browns have done this offseason. They finally seem to be on a positive path. There’s too much talent on the roster to not turn a corner, even if that’s hard to imagine for the Browns.
Brian Gutekunst: It was really strange to see the Green Bay Packers connected to some of the big-name free agents that hit the market. That wasn’t the Packers’ way for the last decade or so under Ted Thompson.
Thompson was replaced as Packers general manager by Gutekunst, and the new approach was obvious. The Packers signed Jimmy Graham, the best tight end on the market. They smartly gave a one-year, incentive-heavy deal to defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, who should be motivated after his time with the New York Jets ended so terribly.
Gutekunst hasn’t fixed every issue. Cornerback stands out as a big need after Gutekunst traded Damarious Randall for quarterback DeShone Kizer. Cutting receiver Jordy Nelson was tough, but Nelson isn’t the player he was before his ACL injury and his cap number was too large. He’ll need to be replaced, and that won’t be easy.
The new approach to roster building should invigorate the Packers. They know Aaron Rodgers won’t be around forever, though there are still many prime years left with him to chase a Super Bowl. Thompson did a great job, but his avoidance of free agency didn’t do the Packers any favors. It’s clear already there’s a new plan of action in Green Bay.
Matt Nagy: When Nagy took the Chicago Bears’ head coaching job, it was a bit of a leap of faith. He had to have liked what he saw with quarterback Mitchell Trubisky last season, but there was little around Trubisky. That’s not a problem anymore.
Nagy has plenty of weapons to work with now. The market at receiver and tight end was thin, and give the Bears credit for attacking it. They signed receiver Allen Robinson, a great addition if Robinson is healthy and back to his 2015 form. They signed tight end Trey Burton, a good gamble on a player who was blocked in Philadelphia by Zach Ertz. Then they added Taylor Gabriel, a big-play receiver who Nagy can get creative with.
Add those players to Cameron Meredith off knee surgery, second-year tight end Adam Shaheen and running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, and Nagy should have plenty of options. Nagy sounds like he’s willing to get creative on offense, borrowing from college concepts like he did as Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator, but he needed better players to execute it. With all their offseason additions the Bears might be a fun offense to watch, and it has been a long time since we could say that.
New York Jets … maybe: So much for that Kirk Cousins talk, huh? Cousins was never going to go to the Jets, because they’re not situated to compete for a championship soon. After Cousins declined, the Jets were left with a lot of cap space and many holes on the roster.
The Jets did add two key pieces to their defense: Linebacker Avery Williamson and cornerback Trumaine Johnson. Both are still in their primes and should help for a while. They were two of the best defensive players on the market (Johnson was arguably the best defensive free agent, period), and the Jets did well to land them both. But offensively? That’s still a mess.
The Jets signed two quarterbacks. They brought back Josh McCown, which was the logical move all along, then took a reasonable gamble on Teddy Bridgewater. If Bridgewater proves himself to be healthy after a devastating knee injury before the 2016 season cost him most of two seasons, the Jets will look smart. If not, they still don’t have a quarterback of the future — though the sixth pick of the draft could net one. Running back Isaiah Crowell, another Jets addition, won’t fix much.
New York could end up looking good once we see all its entire offseason plan, or if the Bridgewater move works out. But it might have been nice to use that cap space for more immediate help on offense.
John Elway … maybe: Of all the free-agent signings, the one that seems the most likely to be a stroke of genius or a miserable failure — with no in-between — is Case Keenum.
Maybe Keenum is on his way to a Tony Romo-esque career, an undrafted player who just needed the right chance and took off with it. Or perhaps he had one good season on a great Vikings team and cashed in, just to revert back to the Keenum we’ve seen before 2017. Hey, it’s only Elway’s reputation on the line.
While it still seems impossible to believe Elway will ever be fired by the Broncos, he’s starting to feel some heat because he swung and missed with Paxton Lynch to replace Peyton Manning. If he misses again on Keenum, even at what Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson reported as a two-year deal valued at $36 million, with $25 million guaranteed, it would further the notion that Elway hasn’t been able to identify offensive talent. Because Keenum’s deal isn’t a long one the Broncos could still draft a quarterback fifth overall, but that invites a controversial mess.
Maybe it all works out for Elway, and Keenum is the post-Manning answer at quarterback. It still seems like a big gamble, and Elway can’t afford to keep missing at that position.
Derrick Henry: Even though there’s a new coaching staff with the Tennessee Titans, the constant of Henry being underutilized remains.
It looked like Henry would finally get his chance to be the unquestioned starter in Tennessee when DeMarco Murray was cut, but then the Titans brought in someone to keep Henry in a timeshare. Dion Lewis was signed to a four-year, $20 million deal with $11.5 million guaranteed and another $3 million possible in incentives, according to ESPN’s Josina Anderson. That’s not backup money, and Lewis isn’t a backup player when he’s healthy. Henry is still stuck in a rotation.
In two seasons Henry has gotten more than 16 carries three times. Two of those games he produced a monster line: 131 yards in a win over the Colts last season and 156 yards in a playoff win over the Chiefs. The Titans have two good backs and that’s presumably a good situation for their team. But Henry has to be wondering why Tennessee won’t give him a shot to be the No. 1 back.
Arizona Cardinals: Let’s check in with Baltimore Ravens safety Eric Weddle to get his opinion of the Cardinals signing quarterback Sam Bradford:
It’s usually considered out of line for a player to talk about another’s contract (which is why Joe Thomas ripping Richard Sherman was so startling), but it’s not like Weddle isn’t telling the truth. Bradford got another $20 million from the Cardinals, basically because the team needed someone. To make room for Bradford’s overinflated contract, the Cardinals had to cut 25-year-old Tyrann Mathieu, an impact player and a fan favorite. Figure that one out.
Desperation, especially at quarterback, makes teams do crazy things. The Cardinals were always the team most likely to be the one left without a seat in quarterback musical chairs, and it played out that way.
Many football people have talked themselves into Bradford. He has rarely been healthy, and the results when he has played haven’t been great. But teams keep chasing the dream that Bradford can be a good starter, and the Cardinals are the latest. After Carson Palmer’s retirement, the Cardinals had no quarterback on the roster and weren’t picking high enough to get a definite Day 1 starter. So they went down the road many other teams have and overpaid for Bradford. It also ignored that Bradford’s knee was so bad last season he didn’t play after Week 1.
The Cardinals still haven’t figured out their long-term plan at quarterback, something they put off during Palmer’s career. It’s doubtful Bradford is the answer to that question either, and the Cardinals are paying $20 million to find that out.
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